The Conservative candidate in an upcoming by-election has claimed the government’s levelling up agenda includes poorer parts of outer London.
Old Bexley and Sidcup candidate Louie French told City A.M. that Boris Johnson’s flagship agenda, generally thought to only encompass the Midlands and the North, “completely” includes economically deprived areas of the capital and that “we have different issues in outer London”.
The exact goals or parameters of the agenda have been widely contested inside and outside the government, with housing and levelling up secretary Michael Gove recently describing it as “making opportunity more equal across the country”.
The programme’s focus has generally been towns and cities north of London – the type of areas Johnson won in the 2019 election to clinch a historic landslide – with more than £100bn in infrastructure projects promised to these areas.
The government’s levelling up plan is expected to take further shape when Gove unveils his white paper on the subject next month, however the Telegraph reported this week that chancellor Rishi Sunak would give him no new funding.
French, who will try to maintain a large Tory majority in Thursday’s by-election, said many boroughs in London are among the poorest in the country and that levelling up applies to them too.
“My biggest job is to make sure we level up,” he said.
“We are a part of London that has new Tube station [and] it’s the number-one borough for apprenticeships. We have different issues in outer London and one of the strange benefits of the pandemic is that the local economy has benefited.”
Business lobby group London First raised serious doubts about French’s claims.
The group’s chief executive John Dickie said: “So far the signs for London have not been encouraging – with only tiny slivers of new funding coming to the capital, despite its poverty levels – and some actual levelling down, for example the cutting of London weighting for university teaching.
“The next big test will be whether the government continues to support TfL through the pandemic – or whether we see cuts to services and London losing the ‘London-style’ public transport system which the government says it wants to see elsewhere in England.”
Labour Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle said levelling up has been “meaningless in our capital” and that “London has been ignored by this government, including withholding infrastructure investment for expanding the Tube into south east London.”
The Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election is being run after the death of former cabinet minister James Brokenshire last month.
French, a local councillor and City worker, said if elected he would push for lower taxation before the next election.
Sunak this year announced plans to hike National Insurance and Corporation Tax, bringing the country’s tax burden to its highest point in six decades.
“I’m a traditional Thathcerite low tax Tory and I make no apologies for that,” French said. “I’m sure once the finances start to recover [Sunak] will work to bring taxes down for people.”
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to comment.